It is good to be optimistic, but we still want airbags...

It is good to be optimistic, but we still want airbags…

Is optimism a good thing?  Optimistic people live longer and are typically happier then less optimistic people.  Michael Sheier and Charles Carver report in Effects of Optimism on Psychological and Physical Well-Being that optimism may lead a person to cope more adaptively with stress.  Unfortunately the personal benefits of optimism do not tend to expend to projects and teams.  So why is optimism good for most of people while it is a problem for teams?

  • Optimism causes risks to be overlooked.
  • Optimism causes estimates to be missed.
  • Optimism causes plans to be slipped.
  • Optimism causes the need for heroism.

In people optimism is a great thing, but for project managers optimistic realism (defined as optimism balanced with “REAL” data) is far healthier. Regardless of my plea most teams or leaders eschew realism and plan optimistically.  We are trained to be problem solvers; trained that we can surmount any problem by sheer force of will, therefore we plan optimistically.  Planning for optimism only counts when you define planning for optimism as a plan based on measured performance plus planned innovation.  Innovation must be planned because projects cannot count on serendipity to achieve their goals and neither can teams nor an organization count on lightening striking twice without a plan and process to attract it.

Agile teams of all shapes and flavors need to separate how they view themselves from how they view their role.  Personal optimism is great, but professional optimism should be replaced with optimistic realism.  Realism is seeing the forest for the trees and planning to make sure you achieve your goals.  A self-managing team must see risk, to predict the future and plan for innovation and change to deliver in a timely, accurate and efficient manner. Teams must focus on performance because they are charged with delivering functionality while making a customer happy.  It takes optimistic realism to deliver.  In short:

  • Optimistic realism causes risks to be identified.
  • Optimistic realism recognizes capacity.
  • Optimistic realism supports making flexible plans.
  • Optimistic realism fosters teams.

Optimism without measurement and data as a balance is unrealistic.